We humans are inclined to divide time, distinguishing good days from the bad. This propensity, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal has proved, is irrational, demonstrating to us the possibilities dormant in moments of extreme adversity. In leading his party to a landslide victory in Delhi on Tuesday, after the disastrous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Kejriwal truly embodies the indefatigable spirit about which former American President Ronald Reagan said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

The going was indeed tough all through, even at the time AAP had a dream debut in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, emerging as the largest party with 28 seats in the 70-member assembly. Over the last few weeks, the party ran a campaign on a ridiculously small budget, opted for a political vocabulary that had an appeal across the class-caste divide, and hopped from one constituency to another in his rickety Wagon R. It was in this car that I first interviewed Kejriwal in 2013, alarmed as the vehicle groaned and grumbled up a flyover, yet charmed at his belief that AAP would either just fall short of the majority or actually form the government in Delhi yet again. I silently wondered whether this was a display of bravado, a consequence of being disconnected from ordinary voters.

To understand Kejriwal, you must plumb the mindset typical of social activists. People like him fervently believe they have it in themselves to bring about change, regardless of the impediments. It is because of this faith they have in themselves that they set out to address socio-economic problems of mammoth proportions. For instance, Kejriwal chose to use the Right to Information Act to expose petty corruption affecting slum dwellers.

The significance of Kejriwal’s choice was pointed to me by Ashish Talwar, who built the AAP’s structure in Delhi, “Arvind could as well have chosen to become a fancy social activist, the type who operates from five-star hotels," Talwar said. "Instead, he chose to work with the slum people.” It is this self-belief, bordering on madness, that Kejriwal brought to politics, and enabled AAP to win 28 seats in 2013 on a budget that mainstream political parties spend on three or four parliamentary constituencies.

Risky proposition

It was also because of his self-belief that he opted for the risky proposition of forming a minority government in 2013, acutely aware it would be pulled down anytime, yet hoping to utilise the opportunity to set an agenda that had an irresistible allure for Delhi's residents. As he said to me, “We want to show people what the real meaning of democracy is.” Playing to a preset script, he set out to implement a slew of policies at a breathless speed.

He decided to exit the government at the time of his own choosing, rather than wait to be pulled down at a later date. In a remarkable display of self-belief during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he threw the gauntlet at Narendra Modi in the BJP stronghold of Varanasi. Kejriwal actually believed that he had it in him to create an upset. Though Varanasi handed him a stinging defeat, he caused the ancient city to gasp at his daring.

For instance, after the campaign had come to an end, hours before Varanasi was to vote, Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia visited the famous Pappu tea-stall, considered the hub of the city's Hindutva intellectuals. As Kejriwal alighted from his vehicle, a frisson swept the street. In a typical Banarsi style, a man began to scream, “Dekho, delko, sher aa gaya" (See, see, the tiger has come).

They jostled to shake his hand, they clicked his pictures with their mobile phones; they said he had demonstrated to the people of Varanasi how to fight an election. None of them planned to vote for him. A young man even said as much to Kejriwal, but added, “In my family only my sister is your diehard supporter. Will you speak to her?” The man placed a call and handed over the phone to Kejriwal, who sportingly talked to her. When someone outside the tea-shop roared, “Har Har Modi”, others reprimanded him. “He is our guest, he is no ordinary man," they said. "We must respect him.” And then they shouted in unison, “Har Har Kejriwal.”

A worthy experiment

Kejriwal’s decisions to exit from the Delhi state government and to contest against Modi from Varanasi have often been described as disastrous experiments, an example of his overweening ambition. In hindsight, both proved beneficial to him. It was because of his 49 days in power that Kejriwal established his credibility among the poor and helpless; he showed that, yes, a government could root out corruption and compel the police to behave respectfully to the lowly, that it was possible even in the post-liberalisation era to have a government that worked for the last man. This is precisely why, despite the incredible Modi wave sweeping north India, AAP’s vote-share in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll showed an increase of 3% over the numbers it had secured in the 2013 assembly elections.

Varanasi, similarly, enabled Kejriwal to become the face of the opposition against the BJP. You could choose any of these terms to define that face – anti-Hindutva, anti-corporate, anti-establishment, secular, liberal, centrist, even left-of-centre. But in Varanasi, Kejriwal become the magnet for the medley of forces pitted against the BJP, for whatever reason.

This was so obvious on the day AAP held a spectacular roadshow in Varanasi before the campaigning was to end. Though Kejriwal lost the electoral battle, he demonstrated, rather effectively, that the spirit of the anti-BJP forces need not be quashed because of the tidal wave Modi had set off, that democracy was about contesting ideas in the public domain, about mounting resistance to what you think ought to be opposed. His landslide victory will only bolster his credentials among these forces.

More significantly, Varanasi prompted him to revise his idea of power. He realised it had been a terrible mistake to relinquish power in Delhi, that people expected those in the government to wield it. There have been leaders – VP Singh as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri as Railway Minister – whose careers received a boost because they did not try to cling to their chairs like limpets, to use Rajiv Gandhi’s phrase. Might India not have changed over the decades?

Displaying contrition 

As pundits exultantly wrote AAP’s epitaph, Kejriwal hopped from one corner of Delhi to another, making apologies. “I have committed a mistake, not a sin,” he said at some places. "Forgive me." They forgave him, perhaps because he appeared genuinely contrite, but also because of the sheer novelty of it: Really, when did you last hear of a politician apologising to people?

Varanasi also convinced Kejriwal of the need to scale down AAP’s ambition. He needed to complete the unfinished project of providing good governance in Delhi before wading into electoral contests in other states. For this, it was imperative to re-conquer Delhi.

Despite pressures for AAP to contest in Maharashtra and Haryana, Kejriwal rejected this proposal, arguing that the party needed to concentrate its energies and meagre resources on the impending election in the capital instead of frittering them away in states where they stood no chance of winning a seat. The party may have increased its vote-share, but a blank scorecard would allow pundits to herald the end of AAP. Indians love the winner, not the also-ran. Post-Varanasi, Kejriwal wanted to be the winner.

However, Delhi could be won only by forcing the elections there. The assembly was in suspended animation, the city-state under President’s rule. It was an open secret that the BJP wished to form the government either by wooing a few MLAs from the Congress or splitting AAP. When there was speculation that some Muslim MLAs from the Congress would provide outside support to the BJP, posters appeared in their constituencies accusing them of betraying their community. These were mean tactics. But this was perhaps the only way to counter the buying of MLAs – scaring them with popular wrath.

Exhausting task

It was an exhausting task for Kejriwal to ensure that AAP did not splinter. There were two opinions in the party. One group wanted Kejriwal to accept the fait accompli – that it was an impossible task to check the BJP from weaning away a few MLAs. Let the BJP form the government, argued this group, let AAP become a vibrant opposition in the assembly, and utilise the next four years to build the organisation in neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana.

No, argued Kejriwal, a split in AAP would crush for all times the idea the party symbolised – that non-traditional politicians could provide good, effective governance. The split would erode the faith people had reposed in AAP, and have them lapse into the cynicism which says, “Politics, ultimately, corrupts the best of humans.” There was also the fear that the BJP, riding the popularity of Modi, would simply sweep away AAP. “The idea is more important for me than winning or losing,” Kejriwal is said to have told those who differed from him.

He set upon to protect his party from poaching. Trusted party volunteers kept a strict vigil on the MLAs, particularly those who were considered susceptible to blandishments. Some MLAs had scooted off to Goa, but Kejriwal reached them promptly. Perhaps he brought to bear on them tremendous emotional and moral pressure to not join the BJP camp.

Kejriwal also pursued the petition in the Supreme Court pleading for the immediate dissolution of the assembly. He would personally brief renowned jurist Fali Nariman, who was arguing AAP’s petition in the court. Indeed, the first battle for the triumph in 2015 was won the moment the Delhi assembly was dissolved.

Other lessons

He had also learned over the months that electoral contests turn into messy skirmishes. In certain constituencies, candidates are intimidated, their polling agents bribed or threatened not to man the polling booths. In some constituencies, particularly those in outlying areas of Delhi, AAP was prevented from laying out even a table and chair for those who help voters to identify their booths and electoral numbers. In fact, AAP failed to muster a majority in 2013 because it didn’t bag even one of the 13 dehat (village) constituencies.

In some of these constituencies, AAP chose candidates who could withstand the pressure from their rivals. There has been criticism, from both within and outside AAP, about the credentials of 12 candidates. It was said they were career politicians, imported from other parties, who didn’t measure up to AAP’s norms of suitability.

Kejriwal claimed, as he did in his interview to Scroll.in, that a candidate who passed the test of three Cs – corruption, character, crime – could not be deprived of the ticket already assigned. (Another C – communalism – was added later.) Two of the 12 candidates were subsequently changed by the special party committee that investigated the charges levelled against them. In a way, giving tickets to career politicians, apart from those who had won in 2013, implied a lowering of AAP’s standards. Only one of its 70 candidates in 2013 had fought the assembly or parliamentary elections previously. But it also suggests Kejriwal has become pragmatic, redefining the framework to operate in and then not deviating from it.

AAP reworked its agenda for the 2015 elections, and introduced new elements, such as government providing a guarantee for those wishing to take an educational loan. In addition, the BJP alienated the electorate by pursuing divisive issues. Nevertheless, AAP’s stupendous victory of 2015 could not have been achieved had Kejriwal not become tougher when the going got rough.

 Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.